I have just finished reading Wolf Hall, a smart historical novel by Hilary Mantel, which portrays the machinations behind Henry VIII’s attempt to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could free himself to marry Ann Boleyn. The central figure in this drama is Thomas Cromwell, who engineered the annulment by passing the Act of Supremacy, making Henry head of the Church of England and severing the English Church from Rome. To supply Henry’s insatiable desire for funds Cromwell used the authority of the Act of Supremacy to dissolve the monasteries and channel their enormous wealth to the crown. Cromwell is portrayed very sympathetically, justifying the dissolution of the monasteries as simply an attempt to regain revenue that had been improperly diverted from royal resources.
However, the truth is that the dissolution of the monasteries resulted in the outright confiscation of approximately one fifth of the cultivable land of England. This land was either given away to royal favorites or sold at a nominal price to speculating farmers and citizens, who subsequently expelled the tenants and consolidated their holdings. This created a huge mass of landless peasants and eliminated the principal source of funding for charitable support of the poor and infirm. The Tudors then had the chutzpah to fill the void with its own Poor Laws at the expense of the hapless taxpayer and with even more burdensome controls on the poor.
The Tudors followed this up with additional appropriations through the enclosure of the commons, and those peasants not subject to enclosure were subject to extortionate rents and arbitrary fines, which often resulted in their being driven off the land for inability to pay. These episodes were far from being unique. In his book, Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Kevin Carson documents numerous other successful attempts to seize land from the English laboring classes, particularly during the Interregnum (1649-1660), the Restoration Parliament (1661-1679) and after the Glorious Revolution (1688) . Even after the expropriations of the Tudor and Stuart periods, the dispossession of the peasantry continued.
In brief, the state stole the land from the working classes turning them into landless wage laborers, and then prevented workers from moving about in search of higher wages or organizing to increase their bargaining power. In addition, it deliberately blocked attempts by laborers to obtain a measure of independence. For example, through the Game Laws the state attempted to restrict hunting, an important source of food for the laboring classes, and at times, it even prohibited spinning and weaving in individual cottages. No wonder that, with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, laborers could be employed for subsistence wages.
The horrors of English industrial life in the 19th century fed the demand for intervention by the state to ameliorate the inhuman conditions of life under ‘free market capitalism’, a state that never existed in England. These inhuman conditions were, on the contrary, due to the state’s expropriation of land from the peasantry. As Albert Jay Nock noted, the factory system and the Industrial Revolution did not create hordes of miserable beings. When the factory system came in, those hordes were already there and they went into the mills. Their misery and degradation did not lie at the door of the free market but at the door of the state.
“Be it or be it not true that Man is shapen in iniquity and conceived in sin, it is unquestionably true that Government is begotten of aggression, and by aggression.” Herbert Spencer